SERMON: Touching Fire by Matthew Kelty

Touching Fire Matthew Kelty, OCSO

Then, the same day at evening, being the first day of the week, when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled,  for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in the midst, and said to them, “Peace be with you.”  When He had said this, He showed them His hands and His side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord.

So Jesus said to them again, “Peace to you! As the Father has sent Me, I also send you.”  And when He had said this, He breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

Now Thomas, called the Twin, one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came.  The other disciples therefore said to him, “We have seen the Lord.”  So he said to them, “Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe.”

And after eight days His disciples were again inside, and Thomas with them. Jesus came, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, “Peace to you!” Then He said to Thomas, “Reach your finger here, and look at My hands; and reach your hand here, and put it into My side. Do not be unbelieving, but believing.”

And Thomas answered and said to Him, “My Lord and my God!”

Jesus said to him, “Thomas, because you have seen Me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name. (John 20:19-31)

There are two kinds of travelers to the Holy Land, especially to Jerusalem: tourists and pilgrims.  A tourist moves from the center of his existence, his home, to the periphery.  He is on vacation.  A pilgrim moves from the periphery, to the center to the world, his home.

It has been noted in the Jerusalem medical world that there is a tendency to break down among pilgrims.  One doctor has treated hundreds in the last ten years.  Most of them had previous problems, but many not.  Overwhelmed by profound spiritual experience, they come suddenly to fancy themselves Jesus, Mary, the Messiah, or one of the prophets.  The treatment is not difficult; it is effective.  Usually it is all over in a week and becomes total and final when they leave.  They return to normal and wonder whatever happened to them.  People in the Israel tourist trade are familiar with all this, called popularly the “Jerusalem Syndrome,” and know all the telltale signs.  The first is to fall behind your tour group.  Then irritation with them all.  Then comes preaching.  Finally, one goes around in a bed sheet.  Members of the Israeli Army, should they find a European or American wandering in white looking for locusts and honey, simply take the person to the psychiatric hospital in northwest Jerusalem.  The head doctor there says it is not true psychosis, but a religious casualty.  People get too close to fire and catch on fire themselves.

A kindergarten teacher believed for a week that she was pregnant with the new messiah, then returned to Maine, and to her husband and job and didn’t say a word about it.  A pastor from the Midwest went on a tour of the Holy Land with his wife.  As he stood before Golgotha he acquired a fierce belief that he was Jesus returned to Earth.  After five days he returned to the Midwest, to his pulpit.  Among the listening parishioners only his wife knew about his brief fling with divinity.  A computer programmer from New York City visited Jerusalem in 1994 and was suddenly seized by the worry that he might be Jesus.  If so, what should he do?

One comment suggests that likely candidates for the syndrome are Catholics and the Orthodox who love ritual, rite, ceremony, and liturgy.  Not so.  Ninety-five percent of the cases are Protestant.

The doctor says that for Protestants the religious hierarchy has been broken.  They have direct access to God and that enables one to have a strong personal experience.  But the loss of ritual, the loss of the sacramental tradition, is dangerous under stressful conditions.  Ritual is a psychic machinery by which the believer can get close to God, to the fire, without getting burnt.

Ruth Barnhouse, a psychiatrist and Episcopal priest, agrees.  The Protestant stands alone before God.  This is the strength and weakness of Protestantism.  Obviously, it is an advantage to stand face-to-face with God.  But it can have serious psychological consequences.

We can rejoice in the healthiness of our faith.  In today’s gospel reading, Christ speaks of the forgiveness of sins, and he passes the power to the apostles that they forgive in his name.

The entire ritual of going to confession, telling your sins, receiving absolution from God, from Christ, by way of the priest is good for us in so many ways.  Not only are our sins forgiven, Christ’s grace restored or increased, the love of God once again made a quality of our life – but it is all done in a human, humane way.

God forgives our sins the moment we repent of them, but there is healing for us in hearing it.

One can worship God in the woods, on the mountains, in the privacy of one’s room – but it is so healthy also to do so with others – to kneel, to pray, to sing, to receive peace and give it, to hear the Word, to eat the Bread of Life, to drink the cup of salvation.  All very human and humane.

Our life in the church, our response to it is so sound, so healthy, but we are used to it and may forget that, or not realize it.  And the fruit of it is not some bizarre experience, but a deep peace, a sense of meaning, and in the midst of whatever comes, a kind of joy that is deeper than mere feeling, mere mood.  We are grateful to God.

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